Filters (vinyl & digital only)
We have a couple of very interesting modern classical releases to consider this month: one consists of pieces by Erik Satie, rearranged as contemporary dance music; the other is contemporary music that sounds a lot like Erik Satie. Let’s start with Fragments, a collection of reinterpretations of Satie’s notoriously willful keyboard music as reenvisioned by electronic artists like Kid Francescoli, Christian Löffler, and Pantha du Prince. Unsurprisingly, these visions tend strongly towards either wispy ambience or house and techno; perhaps more surprisingly, they work quite well. There are no jacking beats here, but plenty of gentle four-on-the-floor thuds underlying tastefully dubby mixes of various extracts of the Gymnopédies, Gnossiennes, and other piano works. This collection is both an enjoyable listen and a salutary reminder of how odd and forward-thinking Satie’s music was for his time. The music that Philip Golub has written for Filters consists of compositional loops — long passages of juxtaposed high and low pitches with repetitively shifting chords between them. For the casual listener, the effect is similar to that of Satie’s Vexations, but without the puckish willfulness; there’s a sincerity of intent to Golub’s music that makes it inviting rather than confrontational, even as it rewards close attention to its structure. Both releases are highly recommended to libraries.
Lux laeticiae: Splendors of the Marian Cult in Early Renaissance Ferrara
Arcana (dist. Naxos)
Yes, the album title sounds like it belongs to a scholarly monograph based on someone’s doctoral dissertation. But don’t be misled: the music presented here is neither dry nor academic. It’s drawn from a 15th-century codex that belonged to the Este court in Ferrara, which contains motets by an odd assortment of four composers: the Franco-Flemish masters Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Dufay, and the English composers Leonel Power and John Dunstaple; all four are important figures of the early Renaissance period. You’ll hear hints of ars nova in Dufay’s setting of Flos forum, and Power’s soft but powerful Salve Regina misericordie slowly builds a mesmerizing melody line and then adds harmony as the work progresses, to quietly spectacular effect. As always, the La Reverdie ensemble imbue everything they perform with a golden light. Highly recommended to all collections.
Johann Wilhelm Wilms
The Piano Concertos Vol. 1
Ronald Brautigan; Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willems
Bis (dist. Naxos)
Johann Wilhelm Wilms was a contemporary of Beethoven and, like too many composers who fell under Beethoven’s temporal and cultural shadow, never achieved international acclaim during his lifetime — despite being reportedly more popular than Beethoven in his adopted hometown of Amsterdam. Highly accomplished as a teacher, flautist, pianist, and composer, Wilms took on many different jobs before settling down as organist in a Mennonite church and dedicating himself to composition. The three piano concertos performed here (on period instruments, with the outstanding Ronald Brautigan at a surprisingly robust-toned fortepiano) show him to have been a master of the form; unfortunately, only five of the piano concertos he is known to have written have survived. But the title of this disc gives us hope that we’ll hear at least the other two in an upcoming installment. The performances are outstanding and the recorded sound positively sparkles.
Michel de la Barre
Premier livre de pièces pour la flûte traversière, avec la basse continue
The Opus Project
Navona (dist. Parma)
There’s such a wealth of baroque flute music available today that it can be hard to remember how groundbreaking the work of Michel de la Barre was. Hailed as one of the greatest flautists of his time, de la Barre was also the first French composer to write and publish solo music for his instrument. He was a popular player both at court and in salon concerts, and was a featured performer alongside such masters as François Couperin, Marin Marais, and the Hotteterre brothers. His music is not commonly performed today, so this lovely recording is doubly welcome for its historical significance and its sheer attractiveness; while the continuo parts are sometimes a bit hard to hear, baroque flautist Joanna Marsden’s burnished tone and delicate touch are put to exceptionally fine use on these five suites. For all early music collections.
Europa Galante / Fabio Biondi
Naïve Classiques (dit. Naxos)
The term “early music” has different definitions in different contexts, obviously. On its own, it usually refers to music of the medieval, Renaissance, and baroque eras, usually performed on period instruments. In the context of this album, it refers to early compositions by a composer known primarily as an exponent of the Romantic style — performed on period instruments. These works (which include sinfonias for strings, a violin concerto, a vocal piece, and various chamber works including several fugues) were all written by Mendelssohn when he was between the ages of 11 and 18, and reflect a dedication to classical norms that both animated his work and complicated his relationship with his musical times throughout his career. By using instruments constructed and strung according to the practices of the early 19th century, Fabio Biondi and his ensemble make Mendelssohn’s connection and debt to his forebears especially clear. The playing here is marvelous, as is the music.
Out to Dinner
Food Is Medicine
The fourth release by this modern-jazz supergroup (which, this time out, consists of saxophonist Patrick Cornelius, vibraphonist Behn Gillece, trombonist Ryan Keberle, bassist Boris Koslov, and drummer Rudy Royston) continues both its tradition of punning food-based album titles and elegant but slightly challenging straight-ahead compositions. Keberle’s “The Slope of the Blues” features slithery chord changes that give the soloists plenty of room to explore, while Koslov’s “After KW” is a near-ballad with a gently lurching rhythm that never quite lets you relax into a groove but amply rewards the attention it demands. As always, Gillece’s vibes playing is a highlight, as is Royston’s subtle and supple drumming, but everyone plays together beautifully.
Tone Paintings: The Music of Dodo Marmarosa
Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild
I confess that, not being familiar with the music of Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa, I was expecting a Latin jazz program. But that just displays some embarrassing ignorance of jazz history on my part: in fact, Marmarosa was one of the pianists at the red-hot center of the bebop scene in 1940s New York, having played for such major swing bandleaders as Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw before being brought in as a featured pianist on Charlie Parker’s Dial sessions. But by the end of the decade he had largely retired from music and his name is hardly remembered now. Which is a shame, because as this outstanding trio recording makes clear, he was a tremendously gifted composer, and tunes like “Dodo’s Bounce” and “Opus No. 5” are both complex and sweetly lyrical, a fairly rare combination in 1940s jazz. Pianist Craig Davis (alongside the stellar rhythm section of John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton) has crafted a gorgeous and long-overdue tribute to a criminally underrated jazz talent.
Wider Than the Sky
Naftule’s Dream Recordings
This album fits a bit uncomfortably in the jazz section, but because the jazz scene (writ large) has been Dickson’s musical home for much of his career, it seems like the most logical placement. The music on his new solo album consists of looped and layered recordings of himself over which Dickson plays long, discursive, and often heartbreakingly beautiful solos. (Structurally, think Frippertronics, on which this technique is largely based.) From time to time you’ll hear hints of his klezmer roots (and sometimes more than a hint, as on the quietly keening “Memories Lost”) as well as bluesy and jazzy inflections, but overall this music is pretty much sui generis. Wider Than the Sky is an apt title; there’s an almost pastoral flavor to many of his melodies, and the loops create spacious soundscapes for him to explore. Highly recommended to all libraries.
The line between straight-ahead jazz and fusion (or, heaven help us, “smooth jazz”) can be fuzzy and the borderland it defines can be treacherous: tread carefully and you can create exciting and forward-thinking music; get careless and you might slip into a puddle of schlock. On his new album, guitarist Hugo Fernandez offers a master class in negotiating this difficulty: from his tone to his chord progressions, he delivers lush textures and smooth surfaces. But beneath those surfaces lie churning harmonic complexities and melodic pathways that wind and turn back on themselves beautifully. Note, for example, how the gentle chord changes on “Undercurrent” smooth out the effect of its vexing rhythmic irregularities — and how “Watertones”‘ funky basslines accentuate the rhythmic irregularities of that composition. It’s a rare jazz album that is simultaneously this challenging, this accessible, and this easy to listen to.
I’ll See You in My Dreams
Doug MacDonald is one of the best straight-ahead jazz guitarists working today, a player whose tone recalls Jim Hall and whose rhythm playing will make you remember that he’s occupied the guitar chair in both Buddy Rich’s and Ray Charles’ bands. He’s also spent time with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and both John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton are with him on this quartet outing (along with the stellar pianist Tamir Hendelman). The program is almost all standards, and familiar ones at that: “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good),” “My Ship,” “Easy to Love,” etc. The lineup will lead jazz aficionados to expect great things, and they won’t be disappointed — although much of the material is familiar, the group plays with such joy and such a feeling of familial connection that it just makes everything feel sweet and comfortable rather than tired. For all jazz collections.
No cat. no.
Let’s be clear about one thing: this is not a hipster Americana album. This music isn’t made by bearded Brooklynites drinking small-batch artisanal moonshine; it’s made by a young woman who grew up in the Virginia mountains and who has been playing, writing, and singing this music (including onstage, as a member of the Whitetop Mountain Band) since her childhood. She’s also been writing her own songs, and her originals nestle very comfortably alongside traditional fare like “Walking in Jerusalem” and “Hesitation Blues.” Well, mostly: “Enchantress” stands out as a sort of cabaret-Tin Pan Alley fusion number, but “You’ve Rambled Too Long” could be a classic bluegrass prodigal-child story song, and “Yodelady” is a gently sly waltz-time ballad of romantic regret. Spencer is also a fine clawhammer banjo player and a singer who channels Dolly Parton and Emmy Lou Harris at their best. And no, your ears don’t deceive you — that’s Alice Gerrard singing backup on “Come Home, Virginia Rose.” Highly recommended.
3 Pairs of Boots
Dark Country Music
No cat. no.
Look at the cover art and you might think you know what to expect: a cowboy-hatted husband and a sparkly-booted wife standing on an open prairie, looking off into the distance. So, country, right? Eh, not exactly. I mean, yes, there’s a banjo on “Sweet Spot,” and a bottleneck guitar on “Mighty Love,” and “Evensong” opens with the line “After a long day in the saddle, we gather ’round the campfire.” But listen harder. The arrangements are big and dense; the melodies are often tricky and owe as much to Elvis Costello as they do to any Nashville writer; if ABBA had ever done a country song, it would have sounded a lot like the chorus of “Just Call Him Love.” In short, this album is just a bit stylistically perverse, and it’s a pure delight.
Seasons (digital only)
0 6700 32717 2 1
I confess that I’m old enough to still think of the Nettwerk label as an electro/industrial label, home to acts like Skinny Puppy, Front 242, and Severed Heads. It’s been a platform for a much broader spectrum of pop music over the years, of course, but even still I was kind of surprised to see this release from folk-rocker Graeme James on the Nettwerk imprint. James is a gifted songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, known for using a loop pedal onstage to create his own virtual band. He’s brought in some friends for this, his first full-length album, but the vision is still all his, and it serves his songs well. Plainspoken vocals and a shimmering arrangement give “The Tallest Tree” wings, while “Everlasting Love” is an ode to committed relationships that pairs acoustic instrument backbeats with a gentle honky tonk stomp. The lyrics to “The Angel of St. George” are wry and the song is lovely, as is the whole album.
Un-Scene!: Post-punk Birmingham 1978-1982
Easy Action (dist. Redeye)
Heaven help me, I’m such a sucker for these new wave and post-punk retrospective collections — and when they document out-of-the-way localities and musical centers (trying not to say “scenes” here, given the title), so much the better. Birmingham, England was actually far from a musical backwater at the turn of the 1980s — but it was known mainly for producing outstanding reggae (Steel Pulse, UB40) and ska (The Beat) bands. Few of the charmingly ragged-sounding and willfully experimental post-punk groups documented here went on to make much of a splash anywhere else: a few of our readers may remember Nikki Sudden (and/or Swell Maps) and the marvelous Au Pairs — and maybe (maybe) the Prefects — but The Nervous Kind? Joe Crow? Fast Relief? No. And that’s what makes this collection so great, and such a boon to any library seeking to collect comprehensively in 20th century popular music. Also, did I mention that the sound quality is almost uniformly terrible? But hey, for us it’s all about the research value.
Domino (dist. Redeye)
As all you Gentle Readers know, I love me some weird pop music, and the second album by singer-songwriter Tirzah gives us both plenty of pop and plenty of weirdness, so it’s right up my alley. The textures are digitally created, but still thick and smoky; the tempos are slow and methodical, though the vocals are dreamy and sometimes mixed in such a way that they almost lapse into abstract sound. Think of Rhi (with less of a pothead vibe), or Tricky (with less of an obvious debt to hip hop). There’s lots of subtlety here: “Beating” makes a quiet nod to trap but never comes close to embracing it; “Crepuscular Rays” seems to be composed entirely of shreds of vocal, deconstructed and stretched and manipulated to the breaking point and presented as smears across a beatless canvas; “Send Me,” on the other hand, consists mainly of steadily thumping kick drum and languorous vocals, before atmospherically distorted guitar kicks in at the very end. (A remix album has just been released as well.)
Long As in Short; Walk As in Run
Klanggalerie (dist. MVD)
The practice of “preparing” an instrument by physically altering it so as to radically change the sounds it makes was popularized in the middle of the 20th century by the avant-garde composer John Cage, and has since been adopted by others — notably guitarist Fred Frith, whose adventurous applications of the technique have become legendary. On this album he is teamed up with pianist Annie Lewandowski, both of them improvising together on instruments that have been prepared in various ways. As one might expect, the musical results are pretty wild, but also generally very subtle and detailed. This is an album to play at high volume — not in order to revel in its hellacious noise (there isn’t very much of that, though you might want to turn the volume back down before hitting track 6, “Sympathy Twigs”), but rather in order to hear everything that’s going on. Highly recommended to all adventurous collections.
La Voz del Mar
Patois (dist. MVD)
Cultures of the African diaspora have blended with those in many regions of Latin America, creating a wide variety of musical fusions, some of which have become globally popular. One of the cultural fusions that has not been widely recognized is that which developed over the years along the Pacific coast of Colombia, the home region of singer Xiomara Torres, whose debut album represents both a celebration and an expansion of those traditions. Elements of American jazz, Colombian vallenato, Puerto Rican reggaetón, and other musical influences can all be felt in these songs, and Torres sings them with warmth and gentle power. Contributions from mallet keyboardist Dan Neville and bassist David Obregón are also central to the rich and unique sound of the arrangements. This is Latin music subtly but significantly different from anything you’re likely to have heard before.
Saath Saath (digital only)
No cat. no.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, sitar virtuoso Purbayan Chatterjee has teamed up with bansuri player Rakesh Chaurasia (nephew of the legendary Hariprasad Chaurasia) to record a set of seven ragas, performed in jugalbandi style — an approach in which two different instruments join forces in interpreting the raga, taking turns elaborating on the basic melodic structure and responding to each other’s ideas. The radical timbral difference between the bansuri (a low-pitched bamboo flute) and the sitar make them excellent jugalbandi companions, and Chatterjee and Chaurasia are perfectly matched in their technical virtuosity and musical creativity. They are accompanied by the outstanding tabla players Satyajit Talwalkar and Ojas Adhiya. (Chatterjee and Chaurasia are currently touring North America, and this release will be available in CD format at their shows; otherwise it’s available in digital format, and at an exceptionally low price.)
I’m an African (digital only)
No cat. no.
The 18th album from legendary singjay Tippa Irie finds him celebrating 40 years of creating world-class modern reggae from his base in London. On I’m an African he delivers a solid set of old-school singing and chatting on such timeless topics as grudgeful rivals (“Dem Too Bad Mind,” featuring Keith Lawrence), the need to take care of business (“Flat Foot Hustle”), and uncooperative minibus drivers (“Mini Bus Man”). And he even, though with professed reluctance, takes on issues around the COVID pandemic (“The Thing”). Rock-solid rhythms are provided by a who’s-who of roots and dancehall producers, including Carlton “Bubblers” Ogilvie, the Friendly Fire Crew, and the mighty Mafia & Fluxy. This is excellent stuff from one of British reggae’s brightest stars.